Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish statesman, was the nephew of Gustav V, King of Sweden. Bernadotte dedicated his life to humanitarian activities, particularly in the Swedish Red Cross, and in 1946 was elected its President. In the last few months of the Second World War, he undertook the task of mediating the ceasefire between Britain and Germany. He negotiated with Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the Gestapo and Hitler's deputy, who empowered him to act as mediator. Bernadotte then approached the British government and proposed that Churchill meet with Himmler, and conduct negotiations with him to end the hostilities.
The very suggestion that the Allies and Nazi Germany should meet on an equal footing betrays a deep lack of sensitivity on Bernadotte's part, in that he appears to overlook the fact that the Nazis were responsible for initiating the war in the first place and for the slaughter of millions in the death camps. The sum total of Bernadotte's achievements in his contacts with Himmler was the release of 20,000 Scandinavians from concentration camps - In return for the release of German nationals detained in Sweden.
With the end of the British Mandate over Palestine and the invasion by the Arab armies, the UN Secretary General asked Bernadotte to serve as mediator between the Jews and the Arabs. After the establishment of the UN observers' team, whose task was to maintain the truce in accordance with the Security Council resolution, Bernadotte concentrated on the attempt to find a solution to the Jewish-Arab dispute.
Bernadotte did not regard himself bound by the UN resolution of November 29, which had not succeeded in solving the Palestine problem, and he based his widely divergent proposals on the powers conferred on him when appointed "To encourage by peaceful methods, adjustments regarding the future of Palestine".
At numerous meetings in London before his arrival in Palestine, Bernadotte had met with leaders of the British government to discuss the situation in Palestine. This may account for the great similarity between his proposals and British policy in the Middle East.
Bernadotte's plan was based on the partition of Mandatory Palestine of 1922 (including Transjordan) into two states: Jewish and Arab. Rejecting the idea of establishing a Palestinian state in Palestine, he saw the two states as Jordan and Israel. The two states were to establish a joint council, which would deal with all joint economic and political problems.
After presentation of the general concept, on which there was some prospect of agreement, Bernadotte went on to outline the individual clauses, each of which was entirely unacceptable and rendered the whole proposal untenable. Firstly, the mediator proposed that all nationals who had abandoned their homes as a result of acts of hostility should be permitted to return. This meant the repatriation of Arab refugees to their homes. On top of this, he proposed the restriction of immigration. Immigration was to be unlimited for only two years, after which each side could demand the restriction of immigration of the other party, with consideration for the economic situation of the allies. In the event that the parties could not arrive at agreement, the problem would be brought before the UN. The practical implication of this proposal was the cessation of immigration to Israel after the first two years. Here again, Bernadotte displayed astounding insensitivity: he did not grasp that the establishment of State of Israel was based on the right of every Jew to live there if desired. In addition to these clauses, Bernadotte proposed several border amendments, including:
1. Inclusion of all or part of the Negev in the Arab state.
2. Inclusion of all or part of Western Galilee within the Jewish state.
3. Inclusion of Jerusalem in the Arab state, with municipal autonomy for the Jews, and special arrangements for the protection of the Holy Places.
4. Reconsideration of the status of Jaffa.
5. Founding of a free port at Haifa, to include the refineries.
6. Founding of a free airport at Lydia.
Count Bernadotte's proposals contained many items to Israel's disadvantage, and took no account of the outcome of the war. The Israeli Government flatly rejected the mediator's proposals, arguing that they were not an acceptable solution to the problem of achieving peace in Palestine. However, in appreciation of the mediator's efforts, the Government was willing to continue negotiations. The reaction of the press was more extreme. Ha'aretz, considered a moderate newspaper, wrote in an editorial that:
It seems that Count Bernadotte's luck, which held when he achieved the ceasefire, will run out in his second assignment - namely, to arrive at a settlement of the Palestine dispute by peaceful means.... we cannot agree to curtailing of the sovereignty of the State of Israel, and any restriction of immigration by an external body, is a curtailing of our sovereignty. Another important stumbling block is Jerusalem. The Jews of Palestine will never agree to Jerusalem being included in an Arab state...
And another article in the same paper, by Jon Kimchi, stated:
For the second time in his career, Count Bernadotte is playing the role of 'mediator' and it appears that he is making the same fatal mistake for the second time... the neutrality of his view of the relations between the Nazis and the Allies was of the same kind, which perceives accord and peace as balanced against all the rest. The Count thereby revealed his inability to grasp the depth of emotion of the Allies and their firm resolves to inflict a crushing defeat on the Nazis.
The same impression is now gained in the context of the Count's proposals regarding the future of Jerusalem... now again - perhaps even with the best possible intentions - the Count has permitted this neutrality to blind him to the political and military realities of the situation in Jerusalem...
We did not fight for ten years against the British White Paper, in order to agree to the restriction of immigration to our state on the decision of some other extraneous body... we did not capture most of Jerusalem, did not hold fast for six months of siege, and one thousand of the city's defenders and citizens were not killed by British shells fired from British guns in the possession of the Arab Legion, in order for us to abandon Jerusalem to the owners of those guns and their allies...
Count Bernadotte was aware of the angry reactions his scheme provoked, but nevertheless continued to push for its implementation. The Irgun observed Bernadotte's activities with great concern. Despite our strong objections to his plans and proposals, none of us deemed his conduct so dangerous as to necessitate his removal. Not so the Lehi.
After the first truce ended, Bernadotte left for a Security Council session where he presented his plan for Palestine. On his return in September, he decided to move his headquarters from Haifa to Jerusalem. When it became known that he intended to house his staff in the High Commissioner's Residence in Jerusalem, Dov Joseph warned him of the dangers inherent in this plan.
Bernadotte ignored Joseph's advice, and on September19, arrived in Jerusalem to discuss, among other things, the technical details of the transfer of the UN headquarters. His plane landed in the morning hours at the Kalandia airfield (near Atarot) and from there he was driven to Jerusalem. As he was passing Arab-controlled Sheikh Jarrah, shots were fired at his car from an automatic weapon, but the Count continued towards the Mandelbaum Gate, where Captain Moshe Hilman of the IDF Liaison Unit was waiting for him. When Hilman introduced himself, Bernadotte said: "when you drive with me, I don't want you to carry a revolver. We are UN personnel and the UN flag is our protection." Hilman left his revolver at the gate and joined Bernadotte's car. The convoy drove to the YMCA building for a meeting with UN observers, and from there set out for the High Commissioner's Residence.
At around 5:00 pm Bernadotte left the Residence in a three-car convoy. An hour previously, a jeep had set out from the Lehi camp in Talbieh with four men aboard. They had driven to Katamon, stopped by a barrier close to the curve in the road between Kiryat Shmuel and Katamon (now Palmach Street) and had parked by the side of the road. When the men in the jeep spotted the convoy approaching, the driver started up his engine and placed his vehicle diagonally across the road. The convoy halted by the jeep and the Lehi fighters jumped out and went over to Bernadotte's car. They aimed their weapons at the back seat and fired several bursts of machine-gun fire. Colonel Serot, who was sitting beside Bernadotte, was killed instantly; the Count himself died after being brought to hospital.
Word of the assassination reached Ben-Gurion while he was holding discussions with the IDF general staff:1
Suddenly, at six, a cable arrived from Moshe Dayan and then from Dov Joseph that Jews had murdered Bernadotte and Colonel Serot in Katamon in a jeep traveling in front of them. I summoned Isser Harel (head of the civil Intelligence Service) and the head of the Military Police to arrest all the Lehi people here; the Harel (Palmach) battalion is to be sent up to Jerusalem and orders are to be given to Dov Joseph and Moshe Dayan to act firmly and mercilessly...
The next morning, Saturday, an IDF force raided the Lehi camp in the city, but found it deserted. The security forces arrested a large number of Lehi members.
At seven Moshe Dayan telephoned to say that dissidents had killed Bernadotte and Serot, and that it was not known whether it was the Irgun or Lehi...
At eight thirty Isser Harel arrived. He had clarified from the highest possible source that it was not the Irgun...
On Sunday, September 19, two days after the assassination of Bernadette, the Cabinet held a lengthy discussion on the deed and on relations with the Irgun and Lehi. Yitzhak Greenboim tried to moderate the discussion and repeated his proposal that Irgun fighters be permitted to join the IDF and to take an oath of allegiance which would apply only to Jerusalem. He explained that as long as the fate of Jerusalem was in the balance, the presence of Irgun fighters in the city was acceptable. He said that if it were decided to transfer the IDF from Jerusalem and if Israeli law did not apply to the city, then the Irgun would be free to act there as it chose.
The Prime Minister rejected the idea of granting any kind of privilege to the 'dissidents' in the event of a change in the status of Jerusalem and made two proposals of his own: the first - 'to inform the Irgun in Jerusalem that all state laws regarding the army, enlistment and weapons apply to the citizens of Jerusalem and those presently there as they do to the residents of any other place in the country and that they must obey those laws without further negotiations.' The second - 'to empower the army to maintain these laws within the territory of Jerusalem and, when required, the army will be authorized to use the necessary force; the Irgun in Jerusalem were warned of this. Ben-Gurion, Zisling and Sharett will determine the arrangements for implementing this decision.'2
The two decisions were passed by a majority and a special ministerial committee hastened to implement them. On Ben-Gurion's instructions, the following ultimatum was handed to the Irgun in Jerusalem:
To the Irgun Command in Jerusalem,
I have been ordered by the Chief of the General Staff of the IDF to inform you as follows:
1. The Irgun in Jerusalem must accept the law of the state concerning the army, enlistment and weapons.
2. All Irgun members who are eligible for military service must join the IDF.
3. All weapons must be handed over to the IDF.
4. All those joining the IDF must take the oath of allegiance, which is binding on each and every soldier.
5. Irgun members will be treated like all other Jews.
6. If, within the twenty-four hours commencing today, Monday, September 20, 1948, at 12.00, you accept this dictate; disband the Irgun and its special battalions, hand over your weapons and join the ranks of the IDF - none of you will be held accountable for your flouting of Israeli law, and you will be treated like all other Jews.
7. If, during this specified time, you do not respond in theory and in practice to the Government's demands, the army will act with all the means at its disposal.
Yigael Yadin - General
Head Operations Division of the General Staff, IDF.
This ultimatum was strange since it had been known for several months that the Irgun was ready to disband and to join the IDF. Already in August, one month before the assassination of Bernadotte, Isser Harel had told the Prime Minister of the Irgun's willingness to capitulate.3 Since then negotiations had been underway with Yitzhak Greenboim and an agreement had been arrived at whereby Irgun members would enlist in the ranks of the IDF.
The Irgun leaders in Jerusalem were firmly resolved to avoid fraternal strife, and the following day they informed Moshe Dayan of their consent to disband the organisation:
In reply to the ultimatum submitted to us yesterday, we hereby inform you that, taking into consideration the threat of use of force, and our desire to avoid shedding Jewish blood which would result from the implementation of this threat - we accept the ultimatum.
The Irgun Zvai Leumi will disband in accordance with the demands of the provisional government in a manner and fashion to be determined between us and the command of the IDF brigade in Jerusalem.
Thus Ben-Gurion successfully exploited the assassination of Count Bernadotte to liquidate the Irgun in Jerusalem, despite knowing that the organisation had nothing to do with the deed.
I had been following the proceedings from my home in Ramat Gan. Although relieved that the Irgun command in Jerusalem had succeeded in preventing civil war and had agreed to the conditions of the ultimatum, I was angered at the way in which the organisation had ended its mission. The ultimatum was an insult to the courage and honor of the many people who had placed their lives at risk in defence of Jerusalem, who had served their country beyond the call of duty. I felt that we deserved to join the IDF in a more dignified fashion.
The following day I presented myself at the IDF Enlistment Office in Tel Aviv.
1. Ben-Gurion's Diary, The War of Independence, p.698
2. Shlomo Nakdimon, Altalena, p. 142-144
3. David Ben-Gurion, Military Diary, 652